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November 7, 2009

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Following poets' footsteps to find Heaven Terrace Mount

Almost Heaven Legendary poet Li Bai extolled the peaks, magical valleys, swirling mists and waterfalls in Mt Tiantai, or Heaven Terrace Mountain. Zhu Moqing follows in his footsteps in Zhejiang Province and declares it's almost Heaven.

Legendary Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) traveler and geographer Xu Xiake (1587-1641) in his famous "Travel Diary" detailed two trips to a mountain retreat in eastern Zhejiang Province with well-preserved Buddhist heritage and spectacular scenery.

Its awe-inspiring peaks and cliffs, mysterious valleys and magical waterfalls had inspired even earlier luminaries such as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Li Bai (AD 701-762).

In one of the earliest writings about the mountain, by the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420) author Sun Chuo (AD 314-371), it had already been crowned "the most sacred and graceful of all mountains."

This is Mt Tiantai, or Heaven Terrace Mountain, Zhejiang's unmatched monument in the history of Chinese art, literature and religion. Filled with skepticism whether the revered mountain has maintained its magic through the centuries, I decided to follow the writings and footsteps of the ancients.

At the northern tip of Taizhou City, Mt Tiantai forms the culmination of the Tiantai range, which runs northeastwards and extends into the East China Sea as the Zhoushan Archipelago.

A six-hour coach trip from Shanghai took me to Tiantai County at the foot of the mountain. Viewed from Google Earth, the town was curiously built into a boomerang-shaped basin bordered by well-defined cliffs almost straightly lined up. As the coach left the last tunnel on its way, the towering cliffs of Mt Tiantai, which form the northeastern margin of the boomerang, loomed on the horizon like a formidable wall, with bare rocks high up glistening in the early autumn haze.

The easiest destination to visit upon arriving in the town is Guoqing Temple, secluded in some nearby foothills. The renowned Buddhist sanctuary, first built in AD 598 during the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), played a vital role in the development of East Asia Buddhism.

Shortly before its establishment, Master Zhiyi (AD 538-597) founded here China's first indigenous and systematic Buddhist teachings, the Tiantai sect, named after the mountain. During the Tang Dynasty, the temple attracted attendance by monks from all over the country and even from Japan. Japanese monk Saicho aka Dengyo-Daishi (AD 767-822) created the Japanese descendant of the school, Tendaishu, after he had returned to Japan from months of study in Mt Tiantai.

Guoqing Temple underwent several renovations in the following century and the temple that stands today was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) during the reign of the Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735).

However, a tall all-brick Guoqing Pagoda, built with the oldest temple in the Sui Dynasty, has remained largely unscathed, making it one of the oldest surviving brick pagodas in China.

Shrouded in puffs of incense smoke and the mellow chanting of monks, the temple unveiled its natural charm as daylight dimmed. A pleasant walk at this time of the day also proved to be informative, since the absence of tourists made it possible to study more carefully the historic relics that abounded on the way.

Guoqing Temple served as one of the many lodges for traveler ancient Xu during his exploration of the mountain 400 years ago. But I opted to spend my nights in Longhuangtang Village, "a junction of major mountain trails," as described by Xu, high up on Mt Tiantai at an altitude of around 800 meters.

The largely primitive village was in dramatic contrast with a nearby hotel built to four-star standard. Opened in July this year, the Shiliang Hotel offers accommodation of great value and delicious local dishes such as stewed pork with tender bamboo shoots, braised mountain stream fish and organic vegetables grown by local farmers.

The next morning, with mists still pervading the rolling hills around the village, I set out for Huading Peak, the highest point of Mt Tiantai and now a National Forest Park. Although the 1,098-meter-high peak is easily dwarfed by dozens of other peaks in Zhejiang, it is the only place that inspired poet Li to conjure up the spectacular sunrise with "clouds billowing like a flock of rocs fluttering their wings and waves of turbulent air crashing as if a huge turtle had just plunged" (From "A View from Mt Tiantai at Dawn") in one of his early visits to the mountain.

I was not lucky enough to catch such a stunning view, partly due to the hazy weather but mainly because the magical peak was no longer accessible to tourists.

However, a pavilion on a slightly lower ridge proved to be an acceptable alternative. From it down to a valley of neatly arranged tea terraces, ancient groves of fortunei rhododendron, the park's treasures, flourish on the slopes.

It would have been an entirely different view if I had chosen to come during the annual Huading Rhododendron Festival in May when the flowers bloom flamboyantly. But at this moment, the countless withered plants with their curled branches stretching defiantly toward the sky impressed me in a more profound way.

Huading Temple, recently reestablished in the tea valley, provided an interesting dining option with its vegetarian menu. Across a small lake of crystal-clear water and a wood of metasequoia lies Huading Villa, which also offers an appealing, if slightly pricey, accommodation in wooden huts built on a lush slope overlooking a surging stream.

Xu's next destination was Shiliang Waterfall and I followed suit. Hidden in a much lower but luxuriant valley on the other side of the mountain, the 35-meter-high waterfall looked unimpressive at first sight. However, a closer view revealed a huge rock beam superimposed on the cliff top where the fall starts its roaring plunge, a peculiarity from which the fall received both its name and its fame more than centuries ago.

This masterpiece of nature has long been a worshipping site and two Buddhist temples, one on atop the cliff and the other by the lower reaches of the fall, were erected for this purpose. A ladder down from the upper temple almost touched one end of the moss-covered beam, which is not accessible today.

Sitting on the last step of the ladder and watching the beam misted in sprays of water from the surges beneath, I was filled with admiration for Xu, who had climbed onto the beam to study the fall despite the fact that his "hair had stood on end," as he termed the experience.

When the sun rose on the third day, I was more than thrilled to find that the haze had cleared up, with some elegantly woven cirrus clouds smiling in the distant sky. That enabled me to command during my descent some far-reaching views of Mt Tiantai's mountainscape for the first time in my trip.

Having descended from a ridge, I thought I had reached ground level. But soon I found the trail was descending again. After this had occurred several times, I started to realize the height of Huading Peak, "which seems not far from Heaven," recorded Xu in his diary.

I experienced similar situations. Besides those huge terraces which deceived Xu as flat ground, smaller terraces of rice and tea fields spread over the mountain, creating a beautiful panorama of grand, if partly man-made, nature. Those naturally formed terraces, explained by modern geology as planation surfaces, might be where the name Mt Tiantai came from, I speculate.

One small terrace, topping a breath-taking cliff and overlooking a deep gorge, has been a favorite destination in the mountain since poet Li's time. Qiongtai, or Jade Terrace, together with the gorge, boasts lush bamboo forests, intriguing rock formations, limpid streams and ponds, all images of an ideal fairyland in the ancient time. The view of the terrace under a moonlit night has been worshipped as a symbol of purity.

"Unwilling to dwell even in an imperial palace, I aspire to soar to Mt Tiantai," thus opens Li's poem "Jade Terrace," written shortly before he resigned from the imperial court in AD 744 due to disillusionment with the corrupt emperor. Evidently, Mt Tiantai, and especially Qiongtai, to which he had paid several visits earlier, remained throughout his life a spiritual paradise that helped forge his righteous yet unconstrained personality.

Thinking that descent would take less energy, I decided to climb down from the terrace into the gorge, as opposed to the reverse, which is what most people do. I was wrong, for during the descent I found myself shivering while gripping the iron support chains, the only safeguard for the near-vertical ladders literally cut out of rock pillars and cliffs. The refined and diversified scenery of the gorge ends with a serpentine lake, known as Eight Immortals Lake.

When I completed my trip by crossing a veranda bridge over the lake, I was stopped by an old man selling signed copies of his book about Mt Tiantai. A local retiree, he dedicated his last decade to research of the mountain and set up a management team for the conservation of Qiongtai area.

Having read his well-researched book, I can happily settle my initial doubts about my destination's allure by concluding that, in spite of the inevitable changes wrought by the passing of time, Mt Tiantai's essential charm will never disappoint as long as people love it as a natural wonderland and a place of spiritual nourishment.

How to get there

Driving: Take G60 Expressway (Shanghai-Hangzhou), then G92 Expressway (Hangzhou-Ningbo), then change for the G15W Expressway (Shangyu?Sanmen) at Guzhu Junction and exit at Tiantai Town. Then follow road signs for major destinations.

By coach: Shanghai Pacific Long-Range Bus Station (710 Hengfeng Rd) operates daily coaches for Tiantai, leaving at 8:45am and 2:50pm. All destinations are accessible by taxi from Tiantai Town. Free minibus service is available between destinations on the mountain. Travel tips

Invite a Chinese-speaking friend since very few locals speak English.

Take warm clothes if you stay overnight on the mountain because the temperature there is usually 5 degrees Celsius lower than that in the town.

Admission prices

Guoqing Temple: 5 yuan

Huading National Forest Park: 40 yuan

Shiliang Waterfall: 60 yuan

Qiongtai: 50 yuan


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